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TUAW's Holiday Gift Guide: Choosing the right iPad for you

Welcome to the TUAW Holiday Gift Guide! We've sorted the treasure from the junk and are serving up suggestions to make your holiday gift-giving a little easier.

Are you planning on purchasing an iPad for someone else (or for yourself) this Christmas? First, congratulations on your taste, discernment and generosity. Second, you're probably asking yourself "Which iPad should I buy?" and "How much is my spouse/friend/gift recipient going to love me now?"

With only six variants on the basic theme, there aren't a lot of different choices. Still, you'll want to make sure that you answer these two questions:

  1. Do you or the recipient of the iPad need 3G wireless?
  2. How much storage do you need in the iPad?

Follow along as I take you through some simple questions. Answering them will help you make your buying decision. For some of you, this may already seem like a simple choice, but there may be more factors going into the decision than you think.

Wi-Fi versus Wi-Fi + 3G

Both types of iPad come with Internet connectivity through Wi-Fi, but that limits usage of the iPad to the vicinity of a Wi-Fi router or hotspot. Adding the 3G mobile data connectivity option to an iPad adds $130 to the base cost of the device, which pays for built-in 3G circuitry, a GPS receiver, an antenna, and a SIM card holder. You cannot upgrade a Wi-Fi iPad to one with 3G built in.

With a 3G iPad, you'll also need to purchase a data plan. In the U.S., AT&T's 3G data plans come in two flavors, both of which may be purchased month by month. The least expensive alternative is $14.99 per month for 250 MB of data, with $25 per month for 2 GB of data usage per month the other alternative. Be sure to think about the ability of your iPad gift recipient to pay for the monthly data charges before you commit them to a data plan. Do you or the person getting the iPad really need 3G capabilities? Ask the following questions:

  • Are you going to use the iPad where there are no Wi-Fi hotspots? If most of your iPad usage is going to be in Wi-Fi equipped homes and office, or if most of the places you visit (stores, libraries, hotels, airports, coffee shops) have free or low-cost Wi-Fi, then you might not need the 3G option. However, if you find yourself in need of Internet service when you're in your car, on a soccer field, or other locations that don't have Wi-Fi, then you should consider getting the 3G version of the iPad.
  • Is there another way you can connect to a 3G or 4G network? There are ways of accessing a wide-area wireless network, such as the Sierra Wireless Overdrive 3G/4G or Novatel MiFi wireless routers that are basically mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. These devices are available from Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T, and you can also use some phones from certain carriers to "tether" your iPad -- in other words, use the phone as a wireless data modem for your iPad. If you already have one of these devices for use with a laptop, then you can use it with a Wi-Fi equipped iPad and just use your existing data plan.
  • Do you use apps that need to be location-aware? The Wi-Fi iPad can determine its location through something called the Wi-Fi Positioning System, which uses the known location of Wi-Fi access points throughout North America to provide the approximate location of an iPad. This method can pinpoint the location of an iPad to within 20 - 30 meters (65 to 98 feet) in crowded population centers, but doesn't work at all when the iPad is away from Wi-Fi access points. The 3G iPad, on the other hand, contains a full-fledged Assisted GPS (A-GPS) receiver for zeroing in on the iPad's location using the Global Positioning Satellite system. The Wi-Fi + 3G iPad can determine its location almost anywhere on the planet provided that it can "see" the sky.

How much storage?

When you've decided on a Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi + 3G iPad, your next decision is to decide how much built-in storage capacity you want. The amount of working memory (RAM) is the same in all current iPads, but the flash drives used for storing apps and data come in three different sizes -- 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB. Upgrading the flash drive is out of the question, so you are stuck with whatever you buy. The difference in price between the 16 and 32GB models is $100, while jumping to 64GB of storage will cost $200 over the price of the 16GB model. Here are some questions to consider:

  • How much music is in your library? To determine how much storage your iTunes music library will take up on your iPad, launch iTunes on your PC or Mac, and then click on Music under the Library item on the left side of the iTunes window. The size of the library appears at the bottom of the iTunes window, along with how many songs are in the library and how many days of listening pleasure are stored in it. Once you know how much space your music will take up, you can make a decision. If the library is large and you plan on listening to music on your iPad, then a larger amount of storage will be useful. If you already listen to music on your iPhone or iPod and wish to continue that way, then you may not store any music on the iPad and can take that variable out of the equation.
  • Do you watch a lot of videos or movies? Did you know that a single two-hour movie can occupy over a gigabyte of storage? If you like watching movies and would like to do so on your iPad, then you might want to pay for the extra storage of the 64 GB model.
  • Will you carry a lot of photos on your iPad? Digital pictures aren't too large -- a typical photo is anywhere from 300 KB to 1.2 MB in size -- but if you're putting your entire iPhoto library onto the iPad, you can chew up storage pretty quickly. My wife and I back up our digital cameras onto our iPads when we're traveling, so we made sure to both get iPads with at least 32 GB of storage to give us plenty of space.
  • How long do you plan to keep this iPad? Early adopters like me are usually the type who will trade up when the next generation of iPad appears from Apple. In that case, you may want to spend less money now in hope that you can get a newer unit with better specifications in a few months. However, if this iPad is a gift for someone who may use it for years, paying more money up front will ensure that they don't outgrow the storage capacity of the device quite as quickly.

I hope that this short post has given you some food for thought, and that it helps you to decide exactly what kind of iPad to buy. TUAW commenters are usually helpful when someone has a question, so if you're still undecided, be sure to leave a comment below.

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